Fear, Strength and Burpees (aka Fear and loathing in Wiltshire)

Amongst the many, many things that I can be grateful for in my life to date, my parents exposing me to Monty Python is right up there! I remember hearing a song called "I'm so worried". I have had my issues with fear and worry but have, fortunately, never hit the debilitating near-universal concern of the song! Indeed, many people who interact with me on a day to day basis have commented on my  lack of worrying about almost everything (and people have remarked that it would be nice to see me look a little concerned once in a while!). So, what's occurring?

As regular readers may remember, a couple of weeks ago I entered Ironworx Gymnasium's (in Westbury, Wiltshire @IronworxGym) strongman contest. I'd just got back from holiday and a good friend from Nailsworth Strength and Fitness (@NailsworthSF) mentioned it. I was feeling chunky, and aside from burpees, untrained but healthy. But we have established on here that I am a sucker for a challenge, so, what's a boy to do? Clearly I e-mailed to enter pretty much straight away!

There was about three weeks to go to D-day. With some tightening of my nutrition I could make the middle of 3 weight categories and thus avoid the heavy traffic. Boom. Granted it wouldn't give me long to train but it also wouldn't give me long to worry about it...besides, what's the worst that could happen?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I tried out a couple of the events that were likely, just to give myself the assurance that I had the grunt. As I have said, I wasn't under a flag of intention to compete. And, having satisfied myself that I could move some reasonably heavy stuff, albeit slowly and ungracefully (disgracefully?), I had that reassurance that I should be there. The rest of the approach was quite liberating. Doing stuff for a giggle, or to see what it is like, removes your ego from the equation quite nicely.

But in the week running up to the event the gnawing doubt started to chew at me, like a rat on a power cable. Quietly, insidiously at first, whispering its lies in my mind's ear. Sowing doubt. Subtly making me ask questions without realising that I was asking them, or, in fact, offering any specific direction for the interrogation.

Fear is a primal thing. Evolutionarily speaking it has helped the survival of our species. One of the ways it has succeeded at this is to short circuit the rational process such that stimulus registers swiftly and generates the hormonal response which leads us to put up our dukes or run screaming for the hills.

It is interesting to note both the habituation (the storing of stimulus and response for rapid deployment in future) and the persistence of it. Not sure what I mean? Why is that so many people in north-western Europe are so viscerally scared of snakes, despite the fact that the nearest that they, and generations of their family, have come to snakes is Indiana Jones movies?

Then there are the slightly less explicable fears like fear of clowns or of men with beards (coulrophobia and pogonophobia - in case you wondered). Not recognisable psychiatric disorders (I'm sure the Freudians have no truck with fear of beards...although beard envy is another matter!) but apparently felt by the sufferer. Then there are the less obvious, more insidious fears like fear of failure or of success.

Boyd pointed out that "the fundamental and all pervasive presence of uncertainty is the starting point", and with the exception of death and taxes, it would seem that uncertainty is the only guarantee that we have in life. Which is all very well, but it means that if we're going to go around being scared of uncertainty all the time, we are booking ourselves in for tin-foil hats and a back to front jacket at some point in the not too distant future. So, the first order of business is to acknowledge the fear, perhaps even thank it for the warning signal but then scratch at it, kick the tyres and pop the bonnet. Let's see what it is actually all about.

Once I asked myself what I was afraid of, honestly, specifically, it turned out that there were only two things.

(From “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”, if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t watched it in a while, sort it out!)

No, one was not nuclear war (although perhaps it ought to be!).

-          Embarrassing myself. You know, walking up to the bar, grabbing hold, straining for all I was worth, head going red, vein in the forehead standing out a mile…to be completely unable to overcome gravity’s grip.

-          Not being able to continue with the burpee year because I’d fudge myself up doing some bloody ridiculous event that was completely off-piste!

OK, now we have something that we can actually work with! Some of this was born of the knowledge that I had not done the prep that this sort of thing deserves and demands. But having vocalised the first fear it seems neither so scary, nor, if it happens, all that consequential. I mean, I only knew 1 person who would actually be there and as for the rest, well a) none of the people who knew I was going would need to know and b) while I would like to think they'd actually appreciate the fact that I'd given it a shot, which is more than most, the simple fact is that it would barely register!

This frame of mind was made easier by my unwitting ego-saving technique of not training! On this occasion my self-confidence issues turned out to be constructive! With no illusions or delusions of victory, I could approach the day in a relaxed frame of mind. 

Josh Waitzkin wrote that "the moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability we will be brittle in the face if adversity". And I can't fault it. I know that what you get has no correlation with what you deserve. However, I also "know" that while your mileage may vary, your results will expand and contract in line with your commitment to develop.

I recognise that it is fair to say that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. It is also safe to say that there are those, myself amongst them, who have consciously or sub-consciously sheltered their ego by withholding their effort, whether in work on-field, on the training mats or perhaps revision for exams. Often this is linked to a belief that they are incapable or unworthy of success, but the technique deployed allows the ego to be sheltered by the harbour wall of a rock-solid excuse!

Anyway, worrying though it may be, of the two concerns, my greatest worry was about the burpees, or more precisely, having to stop the burpees! I know I'm not even half-way as yet but I have come so far! I have so often heard the sweet sirens' call  to surrender and resisted. This thing has taken on a life of its own to some degree. Besides which, of the hardy group of burpee adventurers - fighters, athletes, nutters - who set out on the year, there are only two of us still standing...or based on our net bodyweight, two and a half of us! (Props at this point to the band of burpeurs and burpeuses who have set out on a 100-day voyage with us, including the season ticket holder!).

It's a fear not without foundation. I have a history of being mid-venture and getting distracted by something shiny and changing tack. This strongman malarkey could fall into that category. Alternatively, I could just pay with soft-tissue tears for my breathtaking arrogance in assuming I could do something like this cold. Meh, what will be, will be. What can I do about that now? Well, I could save my ego and withdraw. I could ignore it and see what happens. Or, I could work on what I can control. Hence testing some of the lifts and some of the kit that I thought I'd use. Having established that I had a base-level, what's to do? In developing others I have said that there is a time to help and a time to get the hell out of the way. The trick, of course, is knowing when to take what option. This was one of those forks in the road. I figured it was time to get the hell out of the way. Focus on what I was going to do, not on what I wouldn't do (that stuff never works, it just draws attention to what you're trying to avoid...like a tractor beam). Turn off the logic and let my instinct and ample body lead the way.

One way of getting some control was to pop out some burpees in the morning. I figure this would serve to wake me up and warm me up for the day ahead. The night before was agony...how many was a warm-up, what was the stupidity threshold? I thought I'd play it by ear. 100 seemed to be a good number to wash down with espresso and water!

Arriving in Wiltshire on a bright Sunday morning was a good start. I turned the corner to find a lorry sat there for us. The words "this is ludicrous" slipped out of my mouth on the back of a laugh. Daft really, I was alone in the car!

There was a good atmosphere around early on, the attendant men looking around, respectfully eyeing up the competition. Some guys very clearly in a weight category, others, surprisingly squeezing in somewhere else! There were no puffed out chests, no flared lats, no getting out of rulers to measure members. The test was to come, the other people there were irrelevant...in the nicest possible way.

Being a novice, the briefing was particularly entertaining. The matter of fact statement about what each of us would do, matched in seriousness by the earnest nodding of the audience. Come on people, he said we have to deadlift a car...after pulling a truck! Nobody else seemed to find this strange, so I kept my counsel and grinned like the village idiot on a day-trip!

In truth, I lacked the imagination to be scared by the lorry pull. I mean, it's a daft concept and was bound to be funny beyond belief, so why worry. Yeah sure, I've watched world's strongest man while sitting on the sofa, every year without fail, but the turkey and Quality Street sweats don't give any indication of what it feels like for a human to tow a mode of transport, do they? 

I was worried about the farmer's walk. 175kg just sounded like a big number and they'd put out a fat grip bar...presumably for giggles! So I aimed to finish. Register points, that's all that matters. This is about experience and not messing your pants in public! 

Did it. Could I go quicker? Yes, but glad to have it under the belt.

The axle clean and press was another unknown. The base of the unit was a scaffolding pole with a car wheel welded at both ends. With weights to be added. Three reps only, so picking the weight would be important. Ha! Just register a lift. Fortunately Liam went first at 50kg, a weight I'd thought that I might open with. I really should thank him. He made it look effortless and thus saved me an early light lift. I opted to go with 87.5kg as my final lift. Hedging my bets for solid points.
It worked but I was beginning to feel like I could do a bit here, I had more than that.

A bite to eat by the car and a quick 10 burpees. My only concession to the challenge while I was out of the house. Event 3, the truck pull. Awesome! We were all in the same boat here! I talked to one of the other guys. 

"Are you ready for this one?"
"Ha, yeah, cos we've all got a truck we can pop out and pull in training. We're all in the same position with this one"

Again, Liam set the pace, looking good until he discovered the dip in the car park. Agonisingly, the spectators could watch the lorry slow down and grind to a halt. My heart was in my mouth for him, urging him on, gutted for him, somehow remembering something from high school physics about overcoming inertia and knowing how much energy he must have burned to date. We grimaced as he strained and pulled and his feet refused to get purchase on the gritty asphalt. Time was called. Not the full distance but a tasty benchmark. Especially when the next man up ground to a halt in the self-same position. And people came and went. My weight category had the advantage of a bit more body mass, but still it was a case of trying to dredge up what I'd seen from my sofa with a mouthful of toffee pennies...

The slowing of momentum was curiously, marginally better to experience than to watch. The only reason I say that was that by that point the world had collapsed into a very narrow focus. Tarmac a few paces ahead, one foot after another, that tunnel was all there was. Immediately afterwards I issued a tweet which eloquently expressed how I was feeling... "F*€k me! I just pulled a truck!". The surprise heartfelt, the sense of achievement not overstated, the relief? Palpable!

And just two events to go!

The stockcar deadlift. Basically a metal frame inserted under a Peugeot 106. Sixty seconds to lift it as many times as you can. Liam was disappointed that the little fellas had the lift off a block (shortening the range of movement). My category had the rig from the floor and the big boys popped some weights on the outside of the frame. There were two sets of wrist wraps to use if we wanted. I figured that this was not the time to be trying something new (I was already pushing my luck by wearing a lifting belt for the first time in 17 years!) and set to it.

Sixty seconds is both a very long time and a very short time!
And we waited while they figured out the scores and lined up the head to head pairings for the final event, the tyre flip and backward sled pull. I've flipped tyres with the rugby club, so I hadn't been worrying about this one. That was until I saw the tyres! They were as deep as I am wide and, well you can see the photo of Liam for scale (he's 5ft8). 
Ah heck, we were nearly there now, what's to stop us? Well, as it turned out, fatigue and cramp would weigh in with a few comments before the fat lady did her turn.
And that was that, a strangely enjoyable day out, with a very pleasant drive through the countryside on my way home. There I finished off the burpees with the remaining 50 to make it 160 for the day. Oh-ho, what's that? Another 20 makes it 12,500 for the year to date? Damn me! So I did.
Then it was outside to the rain water butt. Dropped in 10kg of ice in it and hopped in. Alternated three minute stints in the water with some lower body mobilisation sequences out of it (and yes, they bear a startling resemblance to a sun salutation!). 
And that is that really. I was stiff for a couple of days afterwards, but nowhere near as badly as I had anticipated. And that's how it is, a fortnight after the event, I'm still on course with the year.
So what have I learned? The same things as were painfully highlighted in observation at an infant's funeral I attended this week (with thanks and condolences to my friends for living these points. While we are there for them, their dignity and example is tragically inspirational):
  • You never truly know how strong you are until you are tested (albeit, in many cases we'd be happier never knowing).
  • Preparation helps but sometimes it just doesn't compare to the experience of actually going through it.
  • Being scared does not make you weak. Giving in to your fears is what makes you weak.
  • True strength comes from within and has nothing to do with puffed up chests and rampaging ego

So, here's to friends. Near and far. To those who touch our lives in all sorts of ways, often ignorant of the impact they have on us. And as ever, thank you for your support.


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